Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What's Up With Dogs Chasing Lights and Shadows?
A dog chasing lights and shadows may seem like odd and meaningless behavior to us, however, dogs may have their own good reasons for engaging in this behavior.
Sure, it's fun to watch a cute puppy chasing reflections on a wall or floor and this behavior may warrant a few giggles, but allow this behavior to put roots and progress, and you may end up with problem behavior that can be difficult to eradicate.
But why do dogs seem so eager to chasing lights and shadows and reflections of all types? And most of all, what can you do to stop them?
A Matter of Prey Drive
Dogs are attracted to lights and shadows because they are naturally drawn to pursue moving objects and this stems from their inherent prey drive which remains alive and well despite domestication.
Yes, despite the fact that Princess Flu-Flu the poodle is fed kibble from a bag and eats from shiny bowls, doesn't mean she's not interested in pursuing, and sometimes even killing, small, furry critters that stimulate her prey drive.
Prey drive may be stronger in certain dogs than others. For instance, it can be particularly intense in small terriers, herding dog breeds and in the working lines of certain dog breeds. However, just because your dog's breed is not listed, this doesn't mean your dog is immune to it.
So lights and shadows are therefore inherently rewarding to chase, and just like tail chasing, can also be attributed to "the repetitive misfirings of the predatory brain," explains Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman in the book The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman's 7 Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend.
A Poorly Stimulating Environment
On top of high prey drive, a lowly stimulating environment may be a trigger for light and shadow chasing in dogs.
Here's the thing: most dogs were selectively bred for carrying out some task in their past. Retrievers were catching downed birds and carrying them in their mouth, terriers were digging holes to kill vermin, hounds were tracking a scent, and even small dogs were warming up the laps of aristocratic ladies (if we want to call that a job!).
It can therefore be said that dogs are happiest and feel most fulfilled when they are given the chance to do what they were originally bred to do.
Nowadays, most dogs are left unemployed for a good part of the day, and they, therefore, struggle with boredom and become frustrated. It's not like they can deal with these idle times by solving a few games of Sudoku or playing around with their phones like us humans do!
Instead, dogs seek out outlets for their prey drive which may lead to searching for nonexistent prey beneath floorboards, chasing their tails or playing with the reflections emanated from a crystal chandelier.
The Power of Attention
Believe it or not, some dogs are so eager for receiving our attention, that they'll do anything to obtain it. And to an attention-craving dog, it doesn't matter the type of attention, even bad attention (such as you scolding your dog) is better than no attention at all!
Often dogs who seek attention are dogs who feel a little neglected. Perhaps you are at work most of the day, and your dog perceives your return as the biggest perk of the day, or perhaps, he needs more interaction. So how can he get some attention from you? He may try to lick himself, he may try to bark, or maybe, he may try to chase some lights... and then, bingo! You start laughing at his behavior as you remark "Chaser, what's up with you? Are you going nuts?"
So from that day, it's game on. Your dog will start chasing lights or shadows just in hope of a shimmer of attention (pun intended!).
Bringing "Light" to a Problem
And then, you have some dogs who start light chasing because owners have "pointed it out" for them by encouraging them to chase a beam of light emitted by flashlights or lasers.
It may all start as a game, and soon the light chasing becomes a type of obsession. Soon, it's as if a switch turns on in a dog's brain and the dog starts seeking lights and shadows everywhere, sometimes even if nothing is there!
Of course, not all dogs become addicted. Some dogs may have a little fun and may soon grow bored of the game. Others instead may be hooked. It takes a certain type of personality for this, just as it happens with people. Dogs under the age of one are likely more susceptible to becoming addicted to lights if exposed at a formative time of their lives.
A Heightened Sense of Vision
Finally, interestingly, Dr. Dodman points out that a high percentage of dogs he has seen who were attracted to light-chasing, were dogs who were deaf. Dodman hypothesizes that likely their impaired hearing may have made their eyesight a more intense experience. This theory is certainly an interesting one.
The Problem With Lights and Shadows
As mentioned, chasing lights and shadows stems from a predatory drive, just like chasing balls. However, a dog can catch a ball and carry it in the mouth, while the light is something you really don't get to catch, so that can lead to frustration and sometimes dogs can get even a bit obsessed about it as they never get to enjoy the "reward" of catching. This makes this behavior problematic.
This problem, after all, is nothing new in the world of dogs. This fruitless chasing and lack of closure may cause frustration and confusion in dogs overtime.
Indeed, trainers of bomb and drug-sniffing dogs know for a fact how unproductive searches may be emotionally draining for their dogs leading them to become mentally disturbed. To prevent this, they, therefore, ensure their dogs are occasionally taken on dummy missions where they finally get to find something and get rewarded for it.
How Do I Get My Dog to Stop Chasing Lights and Shadows?
Tackling a dog chasing lights and shadows is important. Make sure to intervene early to nip the behavior in the bud. If allowed to persist, in certain cases, it may turn into a canine compulsive disorder, similar to human OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
Interestingly, when it comes to dogs, the term obsessive is dropped as it's not been proven whether dogs can cognitively "obsess" about something. In other words, we lack proof that dogs are capable of mulling over thoughts, in the way we humans do.
So how can we get a dog to stop chasing lights and shadows? Treatment often requires a multi-faceted approach, tackling the issue from different fronts. While these tips may work for light cases, truly compulsive behaviors that have been rehearsed for some time, require the intervention of a dog behavior professional. Following are several tips and ideas:
- Stop playing with your dog with flashlights or laser beams just to play it safe. According to Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist, about 8 percent of dogs in America (that's about five to six million!) suffer from canine compulsive behaviors.
- Draw away curtains especially at critical times when your dog is more likely to play with lights and shadows.
- If despite your effort, your dog still finds an unexpected way to chase lights or shadows, avoid giving any form of attention to your dog when he engages in this behavior.
- Provide your dog with more mental stimulation. Feed food in puzzle toys so as to encourage dog foraging opportunities, provide brain games, organize sniffing adventures (canine nose work) and fun play sessions, and don't forget about training!
- Meet your dog's exercise needs. Take your dog on walks, engage him in a doggy sport and let him play with other dogs if he gets along fine with them.
- Research your dog's breed. See what your dog was selectively bred for and then based on that, see if you can provide him with appropriate outlets. For example, if your dog is a border collie enroll him in sheep herding trials or the sport of Treibball.
- Tackle anxiety. Dogs prone to compulsive behaviors are often anxious, high-strung dogs. These dogs benefit from a calm environment.
- Avoid scolding your dog or any other form of punishment. This will only backfire and create more anxiety in your dog.
- Consult with a dog behavior professional if your dog cannot be distracted from light chasing, has rehearsed the behavior for some time and it's affecting his life. Some dogs may need to be placed on medications while steps are taken to work on behavior modification.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 19, 2020:
Hi Alexadry thank you for another well-informed hub. Dogs always find a way to be entertained.
BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on November 11, 2020:
I guess I have never encountered a problem with dogs chasing lights.
My kitty cats on the other hand absolutely love the laser light.
I suppose dogs could become rather bored having nothing to do all day.
Playtime may help or a long walk to help relax their energy.
It is probably a bad idea for chasing lights in the case of moving vehicles the doggies could get injured.
I had never thought about an animal becoming depressed because he does not win when chasing the laser light, etc.
Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 10, 2020:
Dogs are lovely pets and one has to take the necessary precautions to protect them. Your advice is useful. Sometimes dogs are curious
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 09, 2020:
Thankfully, I can say that we've never had to address a serious issue of this with our pups. They usually just bark if they see a neighbor turn on a light when it's dark, or a delivery van with the lights on stops near our house. Then when they're outside, they just kind of do what they always do whether light or dark.
Appreciate the info, as always!
Sp Greaney from Ireland on November 09, 2020:
I think if a dog owner is facing this challenge then they really will have their work cut out for them to change the dogs behaviour. But in the long run it would be worth it.
The poor dog is probably so confused and bored it will do anything to get attention.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 09, 2020:
This article surprised me because I never knew that this could present a problem, but you have given us some good reasons why it could be so. The part about rewarding bomb-sniffing dogs occasionally with a win is also something that I had never thought about. I enjoy learning from you!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 08, 2020:
This is an interesting article. None of my dogs have chased lights, but I've seen ones that do. Thanks for continuing to share your knowledge about dog behavior, Adrienne.
FlourishAnyway from USA on November 08, 2020:
How fascinating that with cats we use laser pointers as toys and thus encourage the behavior but with dogs it can become a problem. Your explanation makes total sense and the solutions you offer are solid and grounded in love and empathy for the dog as well as the pet parent.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 08, 2020:
This is a good article with great suggestions, Alyssa. I never thought about a dog getting bored but I do know how much they like attention nd even affection.